The burgeoning American left needs a coherent anti-war strategy; that much is obvious. But beyond that, it needs an answer to a more important question: how do we begin the long work of dismantling American empire and creating a more equitable, just, and all-around decent society here at home?
Take Donald Trump’s decision last month to fire fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base because he became extremely concerned about the children of war in the Middle East. The move didn’t get much opposition from progressive Democrats: in a FiveThirtyEight analysis of Senators’ statements after the air strike, only five Democrats—Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Udall, Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine—joined Republican Rand Paul in outright opposing the action.
Most Democrats—including progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—didn’t oppose the strikes, but rather raised questions about Trump’s strategy and the fact that he didn’t ask Congress for approval before taking action. Accordingly, Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, is pushing for a new Authorization of Military Force that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force against “terrorists” and Iraq, in favor of one that specifically targets ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Schiff’s new AUMF would expire after three years.
Right now, one party craves endless war and the other only wants to do a little bit of war. No one can ever say we don’t have options.
This reflects a broader problem for the American left. On the social safety net, progressives and socialists have solutions that at least steer us in the right direction towards a more democratic, humanitarian economy: Medicare-for-all, free public tuition, and the protection of public schools and labor unions, both of which have long been ignored by Democrats.
These are important steps. But when it comes to foreign policy and security, the people currently at the forefront of the progressive movement haven’t had as many answers, and that’s going to be more and more of an impediment as Trump falls further in line with the Bipartisan Raytheon Caucus. So what, then, could a truly left foreign policy look like?
Sanders has captured the imagination of class-conscious progressives on economic issues. But by virtue of no full-throated alternative to the hawkish inclination that’s prevalent in both parties, progressives have ceded the ground of non-interventionism and a humanitarian foreign policy to libertarians and paleoconservatives. You can look no further for evidence of this than the fact that all 100 US Senators signed a letter condemning the BDS movement and asking for the UN to “improve its treatment of Israel,” or Sanders’s disastrous explanation of giving the letter his signature to AJ+.
As is the case with popular progressive proposals such as Medicare-for-All, there’s a huge disconnect between Congressional Democrats and the progressive base on Syria. A snap poll right after the strikes found that just 37% of Democrats supported the strikes, statistically the same amount as those who said Obama should do the same back in 2013. There was also a rash of protests in major American cities after the strike.
As Vox’s Jeff Stein suggested, part of that has to do with age. To put it simply, young Americans have war fatigue: a recent YouGov poll showed that 47% of people under thirty think that “US efforts to solve problems around the world usually end up making things worse,” while just 27% think those problems “would be even worse without U.S. involvement.”
Aside from the moral obligation of reducing the number of deaths we’re responsible for around the world and the hefty toll that maintaining American influence is taking on more pressing issues here at home, being anti-intervention is also a politically popular position. It’s no coincidence that the last time liberals made massive gains—the 2006 midterms and Obama’s election two years later—it was on a wave of discontent with the Iraq War.
The first step is recognizing that America’s excursions into the affairs of other countries have routinely helped to destabilize those countries for decades. One doesn’t need to defend the actions of dictators like Bashar al-Assad to see that the United States doesn’t really have any kind of moral authority to bomb a Syrian air base in the name of Syrian children when we’re simultaneously killing children in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen with drone strikes.
It’s also destabilized our own politics. Much has been made of Trump’s unorthodox positions—for a Republican—on trade, but it’s also worth repeating that Trump won the Republican party’s primary while saying the Iraq war was a mistake, and ran on a confusing strain of non-interventionism. Of course, Trump torpedoed that notion quickly, but the reaction of the alt-right to the air strikes shows there’s a growing strain of white nationalists who have realized that endless war is bad and will eventually become unpopular, if it isn’t from the outset. Because of that, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Trump’s (presumably smarter) neofascist successors make it an important part of their program.
The problem that Democrats have with immediately calling out Trump’s foreign policy failures—and there will be many—is that it requires them to look inward. Former president Barack Obama rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to win the Democratic primary in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, one of many Democrats to vote for the Iraq War back in 2003. And in some ways, Obama may have been the president least inclined to push military intervention since Carter.
But that’s not saying much: Obama’s use of drones, his support of the Saudi war in Yemen, and a disastrous intervention in Libya—a country that now has bonafide slave trading again all symptoms caused by Obama falling in line with an American foreign policy that’s been championed by liberal and conservative presidents alike since at least the end of World War II.
One area where Sanders has been good is through his longtime proposal of drastic defense cuts, something that drew the ire of hawks during the primary. Apart from working to end these AUMFs and taking a consistent anti-intervention position no matter who the president is, perhaps the best way the left can build support for its foreign policy program is to tie defense cuts to the fortunes of social democratic policies here at home: the long-cursed F-35, for example, is expected to cost well over $1 trillion total over the next 55 years, more than the GDP of Australia.
The military represented over half of all federal discretionary spending in 2015, and there are a ton of possibilities of what you could do with the money. As TIME pointed out last year, the lifetime cost of the F-35 program is enough to wipe out student loan debt, or cover about half of the cost of our many, many infrastructure needs. Part of the money saved could go towards jobs and training programs for soldiers and civilians who rely on the military for income.
Or we could invest more money in foreign aid – which would arguably do more to avert terrorism in the United States and elsewhere long-term than dropping a 21,000 pound bomb every once in a while – and more time and energy into diplomacy. The Iran deal and the restoration of relations with Cuba, both good moves by the Obama administration, proved that there are a lot of possibilities for making people’s lives better, both here and abroad, that aren’t the abstract need to “do something” that drives liberal interventionist thinking.
The silver lining is that it appears Americans no longer trust the political establishment to make the right decisions with regard to the military, and that confidence is not likely to grow given the fact that a confused old TV man is calling the shots. If the left wants to beat the white nationalists to filling that void, it needs to recognize the missteps liberals and conservatives alike have made in the past, and offer a vision for the future where America isn’t on a permanent war footing. The only alternative to this is the ultimate failure of the left.